Tips for knowing when tummy trouble needs a doctor visit

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Little Jo Jo Ansiel woke up one morning and whined, “My tummy hurts.” Her mom, Dawn, held her and asked if she wanted to stay home from school. “Yes,” Jo Jo said.
“She’s always so happy and healthy, this caught me off guard,” said Dawn. She wasn’t sure if Jo Jo was upset about something that happened at school, ate something that disagreed with her, or if it was a more serious problem.
“I think one of the most common complaints for a child is, ‘My tummy hurts,’” says Hani Gutierrez, a nurse practitioner who treats pediatric patients at Community Regional Medical Center’s Pediatric Specialty Clinic. “The most common reason we see a kid, for sure, is for tummy ache or abdominal pain.”
Stomach pain in children often goes away. If it persists, however, it needs to be addressed by your child’s primary care provider.

Documenting stomach pain helps pinpoint the cause

Gutierrez says she always starts a visit to the doctor’s office by asking about the child’s history of stomach pain. She suggests parents of small children like Jo Jo prepare a list prior to arriving at the doctor’s office — this might help uncover the origin of the ache.
“It’s really the history that is important to me, and so really trying to dig through [the problem],” Gutierrez said.
Parents should document the timing of the tummy aches. Are they complaining before or after eating? Many children who are preemies can have issues with digesting their food.
Are the stomachaches in the morning before school? If the home environment is rushed and stressful, it could lead to your child having a nervous tummy.
It could also be something at school that’s causing anxiety. During the week your child might complain of tummy aches and on the weekends they feel fine. Could this be a functional problem — meaning that it’s more about everything that’s going on in their life?

Strategies to try before medication

“If it’s just kind of a nervous belly … I think number one to try is reassurance,” advises Gutierrez. “Just allow them to express this and validate that they may feel like they have an upset tummy.”
She often suggests parents talk about strategies with their children, like taking deep breaths or writing down or drawing their feelings the next time they feel that nervous rumbling.
Gutierrez also advises parents seek guidance from their child’s pediatrician before relying on over-the-counter medications. Sometimes parents think they are helping when in reality they may be masking an issue. And there are often side effects for medications.

Serious symptoms call for a specialist

Your child’s pediatrician may refer them to a gastroenterologist if your child has these symptoms:

  • Chronic abdominal pain that’s interfering with schoolwork and their ability to play with friends

  • Change in appetite and weight loss

  • Pain that wakes them up in the middle of the night

  • Dizziness, vomiting, constipation and/or diarrhea that’s present with the stomach pain. Sometimes kids will see blood in their bowel movements.

Pediatric gastroenterologists are trained to examine and treat children in a way that makes them more relaxed and cooperative.

Little Jo Jo’s tummy ache turned out to be nothing serious. After talking with her doctor, mom Dawn decided to try cuddling with Jo Jo and distracting her with a favorite toy. Soon her tummy troubles were forgotten.